Interview with Trita Parsi

29 August 2014, Washington DC

Trita Parsi was born in Iran. He moved first to Sweden and then to the United States where he studied foreign policy at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies and received his Ph.D. Parsi is an expert on geopolitics of the Middle East in general and Iranian foreign policy and US-Iranian relations in particular. 

He is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) which is a non-profit organization aiming to improve the dialogue and engagement between the US and Iran. He published tens of articles and several books which made him an award winning author. In 2010 he received the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He currently teaches at Georgetown University.

Bülent Aras: There is kind of a new attention on what is happening in Iraq and the Islamic State (IS). Everybody is talking about some sort of cooperation. We have also recently heard that Iran provides military support to the Kurdistan government. What is Iran doing in terms of fighting the IS?

Trita Parsi: If we take a step back and look at the broader developments with the Arab Spring, I think the Arab Spring essentially have ended up disappointing everyone including the ones who, from the outset, cheered it on and celebrated - or in the case of Iran, claimed that they were the source of inspiration for it. Three years later, they are all quite disappointed in the outcome. In the case of Iran, it is a very deep disappointment, I would say. Deeper than they would probably admit for the simple reason that Tehran had anticipated the fall of the pro-American Arab regimes for some time. Not in the sense that they have fermented the Arab Spring or been the inspiration for it, but they had for quite some time expected and waited for the pro-American regimes in the region to fall. They had predicted that the democratically elected movements following the uprisings would be Islamists. But they incorrectly predicted that those Islamist movements would view Tehran as a leader, as an ideological source. Whereas in reality what happened was, in the cases in which the Islamists initially came to power, they tended to be much closer to Ikhwan and even pursuing Saudi Arabia more so than Iran. Even though initially there was, in the case of Egypt, an improvement in relations, it was still short-lived and not particularly significant. It was very much restricted by what the Morsi government thought that they could do without upsetting Saudi Arabia too much. The reason why this is highly problematic for Iran is because they have had this policy for 30 years investing in the Arab street. The Arab street was against the present regimes but the movement did not produce governments. Even in the cases that they produced governments they did not produce governments that were particularly more helpful to the Iranians. In many cases they did not even produce governments in the first place. Instead it became more chaotic and an arena that became even easier for the growth of sectarianism, which is very dangerous to Iran. It is fascinating to see how the Iranians have changed their identification of what their national security threats are. Their top national security threat is now sectarianism, according to themselves. The reason is obvious. Saudi Arabia has, to a certain extent, succeeded in making Sunni-Shia a key frame for understanding the region. Something that they had failed doing up until Syria. With Iran's support for Assad, it became much easier for that frame to stick. That creates a significant obstacle for Iran geopolitically. At the same time, it threatens Iran internally. The spread of sectarianism can also spread into Iran and the delicate ethnic-religious balance that exists in Iran could be thrown off. This would be a tremendously dangerous threat to Iran.

Bülent Aras: The emergence of Islamic State is the highest point of the extremism and anti-Iran outlook.

Trita Parsi: It is also an indication and materialization of the fact that those who thought that they could support such movements also thought that they could control them. It turned out that they cannot control them and that they are danger to everyone. However, while this is happening, another geopolitical development has occurred that has been helpful for Iran to shift away from its original strategy of investing in the Arab street. That is a fact that suddenly an opening occurred between the United States and Iran. It fundamentally changes the way that Iran at least perceives threats from the region. Because, the United States has been a 'top national security threat' up until recently. Now they view sectarianism as the new threat. Had that shift with the United States not occurred, than the way Iranians would have viewed the threat of IS would also have been very different. The fact that they are now supporting the Kurdish militarily is partly driven by the fact that if they go in themselves it would just add to the sectarianism because it would be a Sunni-Shia fight. If they support the Kurds, it will take away a bit of that. Also with the US not being viewed as being a hell-bent intend on attacking Iran, Iran's maneuverability in Iraq also increases. In the past it was critical for them to make sure that Iraq never ended up in the hands of any government that would be hostile to Iran and that the US could use to attack Iran from. However, if the US is not intent on attacking Iran, then Iran does not need to have a completely Shiite government in Iraq. It can be a little bit more relaxed, which then could ultimately be good for Iraq as well. So, in summary, I would say that the Arab Spring has ended up costing almost everyone a lot. Iran may have been the country that has lost the least but it has lost a lot. Being the country that has lost the least very much depends on a very critical factor which is, 'where will the sectarianism go?' If the sectarianism ends up becoming completely uncontrollable and if it will be the defining issue of the region for the next 20 years, then Iran would be the biggest losers of the Arab Spring. Particularly because of what it did in Syria in support of Assad.

Bülent Aras: You said that sectarianism replaced the US as the top priority of the Iranian national security perception. Do you not think that Iran itself is feeding sectarian conflict through giving considerable amount of support to Assad or Hezbollah?

Trita Parsi: I think it does feed it. I think they recognize it, but all of them took place under a different context in their mind. It took place in the context in which very openly there was a debate over here, 'Yes, first Assad and then Tehran'. If you take away Assad, Iran's link to Hezbollah has gone, Iran is clipped and Iran becomes a much easier target. In the context that the larger threat was seen as an attack from Israel or the United States to Iran, Iran made investments. These investments may have saved them in the short run but had long-term costs that they are faced with right now. This is what I was pointing out earlier about to Iraq. In Iraq they learned their lesson. I heard people say specifically that they are not going to commit the same mistake with Maliki as they did with Assad. They supported Assad almost unconditionally even though they disagreed with his tactics. They very much disagreed with the way he conducted a war. In Iraq, they are not going to repeat the same mistake. The reason why I think they can do that is partly because they learned from the Assad mistake but partly also because the threat perception from the West is very different. In fact, if the threat perception from the West was the way it used to be two or three years ago, you would have heard voices here say, 'Let us go and take Maliki and let us put our own guy into Iraq. Let us get rid of ISIS and at the same time let us turn Iraq into the pro-American country which is the best way of rebalancing Iran according to the neoconservative thinking.' Under those circumstances Iran may have very well played a different game with IS than it does today.

Bülent Aras: Are you optimistic that there will be a recalculation in Iran?

Trita Parsi: The recalculation when it comes to sectarianism as being the 'number one threat' is already there. It is going to be operationalized through not shifting towards the US, but shifting towards some commonality with the US. We have not seen it fully. We will not until we see what comes out of the nuclear deal and the timeliness in which sanctions relief, other measures and other deliverables from the US reaches Iran. At that point we will see- if they can truly internalize it. It is going to be a difficult process. This is not a regime that has had an easy time giving up some of its ideological pet stories. It is also very difficult for Iran to stick to those ideological understandings of the world while right on their border you have IS and other groups like that. When the US tried to create those problems for Iran it failed. The US, during the Bush administration, gave a lot of money and support to separatist groups (some were even linked to al-Qaeda) to create problems in Balochistan and elsewhere. They never really succeeded. The Iranians managed to beat them back without them getting a foothold in the Sunni communities in Iran. With IS it may end up being very different.

Bülent Aras: Now we have the Iranian involvement in Syria and Hezbollah fighting in Syria. Then there is the Islamic State and the second war in Iraq. Do you think Iran is capable of pursuing these two wars? Do you not think it is overstretched?

Trita Parsi: To certain extent it is overstretched. Iran's ability to project power directly is limited. It works in an asymmetric way. There is also an interesting looking at public opinion inside of Iran. Involvement in Hezbollah was popular amongst the core supporters of the regime. Among large segments of the population it was a distraction. It was something that was sucking money out of Iran that could be spend inside the country instead. With the brutality in the images of IS you do not hear that any longer. In fact, you hear a desire from people who are strong opponents of the regime for to go and take care of the problem. Suddenly the understanding of the threats that the region can pose to Iran have become much clearer to people. It is a direct outcome of the Arab Spring. The perception amongst the population is that there is actually a real threat and this is not the regime getting itself involved in unnecessary fights far away. The threat is right on their border.

Bülent Aras: You mentioned about the public opinion in Iran. Iran kind of prevented the entry of the transformative power of the Arab Spring. In 2009, there was this call for, 'where is my vote?' Now there is a new leader who is open minded and who wants to open up Iran to the West. What about inside Iran? Does the opinion serve for a kind of reform within or does it serve for the establishment?

Trita Parsi: I think what happened in 2009 is very different from what is happening in the Arab Spring.

Bülent Aras: Of course, in Iran it is more refined. In the Arab Spring we are talking about basic rights. In Iran it was about the elections, which really mattered for the society.

Trita Parsi: It was also an election in which people were rallying because they wanted the person who was one of the founders of the regime to win whereas in the other states there have been revolutionary movements. They were trying to get rid of the regime all together. In many ways, 2013 was a vindication of 2009. In 2013, they chose a different color but Rouhani very clearly went after the Green vote. He was very clearly marketing himself as a person who does what Mousavi had promised but he would do it with less opposition and problems. He would be able to do it from within the regime and get less tensions and friction. To a certain extent, that is exactly what he has done. I thought it was interesting that people celebrating the election victory in 2013 chanted Green slogans saying, 'Did we not tell you we would get our votes back?' After 4 years they won even though they had paid a heavy price for it. Does it mean that it will end up the way they hoped? We do not know. Elections have increasingly become 'elect and regret'. We will see if that happens with Rouhani or not but if there is a nuclear deal and if there is an end to large parts of the isolation that Iran has found itself in, then I think that would be further vindication for the Green movement. Again, many of the people who were with Mousavi are in government today. Javad Zarif was an adviser to Mousavi. He is now foreign minister. Of course, some of the people who are excluded still are in house arrest; the most famous ones are Karroubi and Mousavi themselves. It will be interesting to what extent Iranian people will have patience with Rouhani seemingly not doing much about that situation. There was a very strong demand from his voters that he could not forget Mousavi and Karroubi. It has been more than a year now that very little has happened on that front. One image I saw on Facebook was very interesting. It was last summer and it was during the massacres in Cairo when the police was just shooting down the members of the Brotherhood. Images of that shooting and images of Cairo burning and Iranians have written on top of that image 'Revolution'. There was another picture of Iranian women dancing in the streets on election night celebrating Rouhani's victory. On that picture it said 'Evolution'. A lot of Iranians were posting that on Facebook. It was interesting because this is the same thing that they were saying during Khatami. Khatami did not achieve as much as they hoped. Afterwards, they moved through a very dark period with Ahmadinejad. Then they came back with a stronger conviction than before that ultimately, in spite of the price they pay, it's still less of a price than the Syrians are paying, what the Egyptians are paying or the Iraqis are paying. Therefore, it was a reinjection of faith that ultimately you want change but you do not want change at the expense of chaos.

Bülent Aras: I think it was also a quite wise move on the side of the establishment to accommodate the demands. We do not know what is going to happen in the future but Rouhani is in power now with a different discourse, which seems accommodative.

Trita Parsi: It was accommodation in some aspects but it was also the situation in which accommodation was partly driven by the fact that the conservative parts of the establishment did not have other options. They knew themselves. Some in Washington were saying that Khamenei permitted Rouhani to win. My impression is that Khamenei had no choice but to accept Rouhani winning. If he had tried to challenge it or do what they did in 2009, he knew that the elite was so tense that the entire regime could fall apart. He did not have much of a choice. Instead he had to bite the bullet and turn it around and view it as a win for himself and position himself wisely in that sense.

Bülent Aras: There is a major change in the public opinion. The opinion about Hezbollah and Iran in the Arab street is lower than it was in 2007. Does it matter to the Iranian establishment and Iranian people?

Trita Parsi: To the Iranian people probably not so much.

Bülent Aras: In 2009 I was in Tehran during the elections and I saw a banner, 'No Lebanon, no Palestine, I will die for my country'.

Trita Parsi: At the end of the day, I do not think it made them happy that Iran became very unpopular. When Ahmadinejad was popular in Cairo it did not make anyone in Iran particularly happy because he was not popular in Iran. However, it does matter to the regime because, in my view, it is the ultimate evidence of the failure of their 30 years strategy of investment in the Arab street. I did pose these questions to the very senior people in the Iranian government and I asked them, 'Is this not a complete failure?' Their defense was, 'No, it is not a failure of the strategy of itself. The strategy itself worked. Then, Ahmadinejad came and destroyed it'.

Combined with what happened with Syria, that is a loss. The height of Iran's popularity was probably right after the Israeli war with Lebanon in 2006. It has just been going downhill ever since. It is interesting some officials, almost in dismissive arrogance say, 'Who cares about what the Arab Street thinks'. It is an interesting thing to say after having invested 30 years in winning the Arab Street at the expense of relations with Arab governments. In my view, ultimately there is some wisdom to the strategy particularly when you compare it to the alternative that Iran was looking at before. During the time of the Shah the strategy was, 'You cannot befriend the Arabs. You can outgun them, you can out arm them and you do so by making an alliance with the United States and Israel'. It may have given Iran a lot of power but the Shah knew that Saddam Hussein was going to attack. He knew that already from 1977. He regretted what he did in 1975. Saddam was arming. He was just waiting for the moment. Even if there had not been a revolution he probably would have attacked anyway. Whatever the Shah gained with his strategy of allying with the US and Israel, it never gave Iran acceptance from the Arabs. The revolutionaries come in and they want to get that acceptance, they wanted to overcome the Arab-Persian divide, the Sunni-Shia divide and their tool for that was political Islam. That is where I say they went wrong. But the very idea that Iran, like Turkey which is not a Arab State, needs to find a way to be at peace with its immediate neighborhood without having alliances with extra regional powers. That part I personally agree with. Whether you have to go through political Islam is a different.

Here I want to mention something that I find very problematic with Saudi foreign policy. The Saudi response has been to emphasize that Iran cannot meddle, as they say, in 'Arab affairs'. And they also managed to get some US officials to use that language, probably not understanding the racist tone. There is fundamentally racist division that exists in that term. It intentionally means that Iran, who has had very strong relations with Lebanon for 500 years, has no right to have legitimate influence there and cannot have legitimate influence there by virtue of not being Arab. Whereas any Arab country who may not have at all that kind of tie to Lebanon would be a legitimate player in Lebanon simply by being Arab. Dividing the region along these lines, whether calling it the Sunni world or the Arab world is fundamentally sectarian. This is at the core of Saudi thinking. That is going to be a fundamental problem for Iran as well Turkey. The further Saudi Arabia or other countries are pushing that frame that there is an Arab world and then there is "the others," the more it will spread disaster to the region.

Bülent Aras: How do you see the future? There is at least a sort of agreement in cooperation against the IS and it brought the countries together, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Assad to fight against the IS. This is a period that all countries are losing. Do you expect a common ground among these countries?

Trita Parsi: There have been some conversations between Saudi Arabia and Iran just this week. The Iranian deputy foreign minister went there and they are putting an ambassador there who has good relations with Saudi Arabia. He has been ambassador there before. If this is just a tactical thing just because both of them are threatened by IS, then this will end up being unimportant and it will come and go. If this is deeper strategic realization that ultimately proxy war and fueling of sectarianism will cause them all to lose, not just lose a little but lose it all, if that realization has come, which I am not certain it has in Saudi Arabia, but if it has, this could be a very significant opening.
Some final thoughts. What we are witnessing right now is a direct result of how the US invasion of Iraq weakened America so much. The order in the region for which the US was a guarantor, could no longer be upheld because the United States simply did not have the power to do so. The foundation for the order that existed was not a good order but it was an order. The foundation for it fell apart because of American overextension. Self inflicted because of an unwise decision to invade Iraq. It means that the region right now is essentially ordered less. The US is not capable or willing to spend resources and try to create a new order. It can help from a distance, it can intervene in limited ways, but because the Middle East is no longer as important as it was before, because the US is less dependent on oil and because strategically it recognizes that the real peer challenge to the US is coming from China in the next decades in the East and just getting yourself involved in the Middle East weakens you for that challenge. The US is disengaging, not entirely, but to the extent that it is clearly not capable of recreating a new order. So that job falls onto the regional states. Whether they are capable of realizing the nature of this challenge, realizing that they would all lose unless they collaborate, whether they recognize that whether Saudi wants it or not Iran will always be there, whether Iran recognizes it or not Saudis will always be there, Turkey will always be there, and look towards how Europe did it after World War II and find some inspiration to do so. Either we will go towards that or we will have two or so decades of significant instability until a new balance is found. I do not see any other options other than those two.